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Unit gardens growing throughout TDCJ
prove bountiful

Ben Brown standing in a garden
FIELD OF GREENS - Assistant Warden Ben Brown stands among garden rows of turnip greens growing at the Boyd Unit near Teague. “The inmates here love greens,” Brown said about the leafy vegetables grown year-round at the unit.
Photo by David Nunnelee
Penitentiaries aren’t garden spots, but many Texas prisons are garnished by gardens that help offset the cost of feeding offenders while keeping them well nourished. And the number of prison unit gardens is, well, growing.

Unit gardens ranging in size from under two acres to more than a hundred now sprout from nearly 60 TDCJ prison facilities across the state. Offenders harvest a wide variety of fresh vegetables from them year-round: squash, carrots, cabbage, okra, tomatoes, melons, potatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers, turnips, and other sorts of greens. The produce goes straight from the plant to the kitchen where it is served in a variety of ways.

“When a food item comes from a can, you’re limited in what you can do with it,” said Agribusiness, Land and Minerals Department Assistant Director C.F. Hazlewood. “With fresh vegetables, you can prepare them in a variety of ways. It gives offenders some variety.”

Unit gardens aren’t new to TDCJ. They first took root back in 1885. But it wasn’t until recently that the Agribusiness and Food Service departments teamed up to track garden harvests to see how they might affect the prison system’s food budget by replacing items that would otherwise be purchased or pulled from the shelves of the agency’s cannery near Rosharon.

“They’re nothing new,” Hazlewood said of the gardens. “It’s just that we’re working with Food Service and the correctional side to make them as productive and cost-efficient as possible. I’m convinced that by working together we can accomplish that.”

Production has already proven bountiful. Between August and November, the value of fresh produce harvested from unit gardens exceeded $286,000. The Ramsey II Unit near Rosharon produced vegetables valued at $11,830 during the period, while the Pack Unit near Navasota harvested vegetables worth approximately $9,200. Food Service puts a value on homegrown foods based on vendor prices.

“By not opening cans, that’s the cost avoidance,” said Laundry, Food & Supply Assistant Director Tony D’Cunha. “It’s about costs but it’s also about customer service. Through this program we will be able to identify popular food items and grow what the offenders will eat. That reduces waste.”

Unit gardens differ from “cannery gardens” in a number of ways. Cannery gardens cover much greater areas. And while most of their produce goes to the Terrell Unit cannery for processing, some is shipped fresh to units and to area food banks. Also, cannery gardens are managed by the agency’s agriculture department while unit gardens are planted and harvested at the direction of unit wardens.

Over the past two fiscal years, cannery gardens covering approximately 3,670 acres have produced more than 25 million pounds of vegetables. Unit gardens, meanwhile, now cover approximately 1,700 acres, an increase of more than 500 acres from a year ago. The Roach Unit in Childress has 106 acres dedicated to unit gardens while the Byrd Unit in Huntsville has less than two. But big things sometimes come from small packages.

“They’ve got a small garden that produces unbelievably,” Hazlewood said about the vegetable patch at Byrd that produced foods valued at $7,025 between August and November of last year.

Further, a greater variety of vegetables can be grown in a unit garden. And, when there’s a bumper crop, units can share their surplus with neighboring TDCJ facilities that might be without a garden or short of a particular vegetable or fruit.

TDCJ is following a new recipe by growing vegetables and fruits to replace rather than to supplement cannery and purchased foods.

“In the past, unit gardens have supplemented food served on the units,” Hazlewood said. “Now what we’re saying is that unit gardens are going to replace the food that we’re purchasing. Our idea is not to produce more food but to produce a better food product that will feed the offender population and reduce the amount of vegetables we have to buy.”

The agriculture department offers technical assistance and provides unit wardens with money to purchase seed and fertilizer for their gardens. Hazlewood said it costs the agency only about $50 an acre to plant a garden that will produce foods worth far more. At the Holliday Unit in Huntsville, for example, a $350 investment in a 7-acre garden returned 86,855 pounds of produce valued at $31,241 over the course of a year.

“A garden is the most profitable thing you can do in a prison system, dollarwise,” Hazlewood said. “If it’s irrigated and managed properly, that garden is going to produce way, way beyond the cost. In fact, we can recoup our costs from a fall or spring garden with the first crop produced.”

A year after being converted from a cannery garden to a unit garden operation in 2003, the Boyd Unit near Teague harvested foods from its 50-acre garden valued at more than $30,000. Last year, the unit grew foods valued at $33,000 from a budget of just $2,500.

“I think we’ll do better than we did last year on the same money because we’re getting better at it,” said Boyd Assistant Warden Ben Brown. “We learn every year.”

Besides avoiding higher costs by providing replacement foods, Hazlewood and Brown said unit gardens are beneficial to those who tend them and eat the fruits of their labor.

“A unit garden lets the inmates be productive while they’re here,” Hazlewood said. “The offender is taking an active role in reducing the cost to the state by helping raise food. Also, gardens are to a certain extent therapeutic. People who get out there and work in the garden are able to get out of the building and into the fresh air. And a lot of these offenders have health problems. They need the vitamins and the good nutrition. So, from a correctional standpoint, gardens are very beneficial.”

“The biggest thing about the unit garden is that we have 200 or more offenders out working,” Brown added. “I’m sure a certain number of them take pride in what they’re doing out there.”

Approximately 1,000 of the 1,300 offenders assigned to Boyd have chronic health problems, Brown said.

“It doesn’t hurt a thing,” he said about serving fresh foods to the unit population. “Offenders eating fresh foods here are going to benefit from it, even the healthy ones will.”

Hazlewood said wardens throughout the prison system are enthusiastic about the unit garden program and that suitable acreage remains available to expand the program in the years to come.

“Most of the wardens want bigger gardens,” he said. “But we don’t want them producing from a unit garden and feeding out of cans at the same time. The purpose of the unit garden is to shift from a warden supplementing his or her serving line with garden vegetables to a warden producing food that is going to take the place of a purchased vegetable. What we’re hoping is that we’re going to reduce the amount of money spent on food. That’s our goal.”

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